Second Nature in Practice: A Critique of Myers-Briggs

In my last post I discussed Edelman’s somewhat opaque theory of ‘second nature’, put forward in the book of the same title. This is a way of separating the generalities of human mental life that can be studied by science and the subjective experiences themselves, our internal intuitions, the flashes of artistic inspiration or the intentions of others we gossip and fret about. As these are the type of individual, passing instances that sciences cannot comment on, and researchers have no desire to, it is a way of emphasising those qualities (or qualia) of being human, those that feel dualistic, that avoids the complaints of scientism and reductionism without divorcing them from materialism. This aims to shed some light on the experience and provide us with a compromise between satisfying that nature of ours without denying the evidence that the mind is what the brain does, rather than arising from some non-material element. I also wondered whether it is in this personal, subjective history that science has some limits when exploring some aspects of human life.

In this follow-up I will use the somewhat controversial (to some) Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) and maybe even more controversial (to others) interpretation of it to provide an example of how I understand second nature works.

Edelman uses the terms ‘nature’ to refer to the real universe separate from our perceptions, the target of scientific study, and second nature to refer to the world of perception in our mental landscape, both in individual minds and as shared in culture. For clarity I will use ‘first nature’ to denote the first nature.

The aim here is not to condemn the Myers-Briggs or its users or shake the belief of others who find it helpful. Neither is it to promote the Big 5 personality traits and associated tests. Nor am I making a defence of the general idea of personality testing. I use these things as a demonstration of ideas I’ve had and those conveyed in the book I read whilst I was also learning about these tests.

A Personal Perspective

My history of how I have connected with the ideas of Jung, Myers and Briggs that make up the MBTI is the best way of demonstrating first and second nature. This will involve tracing some of my own personal, subjective history, which I have been wanted to write about for some time. This provides me with an opportunity to do so, please bare with me through an account of my life and mental landscape! I only convey my subjective judgments rather than making an argument of their accuracy.

I’ve been battling with depression the past couple of years. Because I had depression I was constantly looking for a source of thoughts and behaviour that might be pathological. After I finally got myself to a therapist a couple of things came up. One was two how I constantly try perhaps too hard to avoid causing people pain, discomfort etc, whether due to something I’ve directly done or a way in which they could have interpreted my actions or intentions. This led to indecision, distress and negativity on my part, I was sure any action I did would be wrong.

For instance I had a major problem with physical contact: I desperately needed more of it for my mental health, but no matter what emotional depth I reached with someone (friend or especially potential lover) I couldn’t feel comfortable with them physically. I wouldn’t worry so much that my actions would reflect badly on myself, but I was so cautious not to distress the other party (along the lines of what if I overstep some boundaries, with a potential lover it would be ‘what if they sees me as a friend and then I seemingly grope them out of nowhere? Their trust in me could be irreparably damaged’).

The second thing is that I have a constantly developing web of possibilities in my mental landscape, which when interacting with others is tuned into simulating possible actions and counter-actions based on what I could do at any point in the interaction, what the others’ response could be, and then my response again ad nauseum. This may seem very calculating, but it wasn’t, it was based on gut-feeling rather than logic and combined with the evasion of harm to produce in me an almost desperate desire to be sensitive towards the other person. This was despite comments all through my life that I was indeed sensitive, caring and rarely offensive. How much these descriptions arose from my cautiousness is a question I’ve still not answered.

These two combined with the fact that I’m very empathic, meaning any distress I did cause to another would be picked up on.

Needless to say this combination was cognitively draining and often distressing. Was this a factor in my depression? I had convinced myself that letting people in as a sensitive listener but being aware of their feelings might be the cause. So did I have to be uncaring and less empathetic?

I had a huge change in mood not long ago when I came across a description of my Myers-Briggs results, the INFJ ‘functional stack’ (see below), in a video, which used almost exactly the same words I had to describe my cognition. It seemed that what I’d been doing was a mix of the ‘Ni’ and ‘Fe’ functions. These respectively are about predicting future possibilities by drawing on past experience and about ‘being able to sense what’s going on with other people, making all of our decisions based on what other people’s needs are, what their wants are and what would work for them’. This gave me an enormous sense of relief. Supposedly, then, my behaviour wasn’t pathological, but perfectly normal for that personality type. So these things weren’t part of my disease per se, I didn’t have to completely deconstruct my thinking style, but maybe the degree of that I used them and I the way I used them concern for my interpretation of events have been a problem.

The theory behind Myers-Briggs gave me a framework to observe, reflect on and to some extent guide my own behaviour. I could also use these ideas to discuss my cognition with others; both friends and family and an online network of like-minded people (my thanks to them all). Since then I’ve not had a single whole day of being down, I’ve been much more conscious of when and how to slip in to those behaviours and even overcome my physical reticence with some effort.

So a happy ending, you may have noticed, however, that so far all this has been an account of second nature. That is my major realisation and the point of this post.

Loss of faith in MBTI

Since this change around in my personal life I’ve done some reading about the subject and there’s little scientific support for the Myers-Briggs. Firstly, it is based on shaky theoretical grounds of false dichotomies in two of it’s scales between thinking and feeling and between intuition and perception. We now know that everyone’s thinking is influenced by their feelings and their intuitions (biases) affect how we they perceive (sense) the world, so those two scales don’t hold true in theory. Furthermore, in practice the scales should show a bimodal distribution as they are dichotomies, instead they show a normal distribution; most people fall around the cut-off point at the middle of each scale. This means type dichotomies are false and people are categorised based on minor differences, which the test is not known to be good at picking up on, it is not that precise. MBTI’s retest reliability, the likelihood that repeating the test will give you the same personality result, is poor; half of retakes give a different result if taken within nine months, less if longer apart. And there is no way to trace its second nature basis to first nature underpinnings in the brain. The choice of dichotomies is not necessarily valid either, the choice of four is arbitrary and they aren’t as separate from each other as would be desirable, there is some overlapping correlation between two of the four scales rather than acting as measures of distinct qualities.

However, the official interpretation of MBTI results doesn’t just stop with placing you in a series of dichotomies. It then combines these dichotomies first in pairs to give functions based on whether different aspects of the dichotomies are directed ‘inward’ or ‘outward’. Two of these functions are what I identify in the personal account above. These are based on the result from the fourth scale ‘judging’ or ‘perceiving’, the J or P in the fourth position of the type. Then it puts these pairs into a functional stack based on how frequently and easily one uses these functions. These seem to me to be the real the problem, I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support doing this (other commentators say none exists), or any theoretical justification as to why this is done and why in the combinations and orders for each type. Again others say there is none, at least none that doesn’t require first accepting the conclusion the argument is trying to reach. And as we’ve seen, each scale, including the J/P one, is determined in the majority of people by a very small variation around the mean result. Therefore, a minor difference in the J/P scale changes the entire functional stack of ones personality. If there is any use to these functions it is really a second nature description of a set of behaviours only; I’ve yet to be convinced they are anything other than purely metaphorical. The functional stack does not seem to be useful at all, since most people are around the border between J and P, and changes of type are common in retests, it suggests they fluctuate around each mean, thus they use all the functions often in their lives.

(N.B. There are alternatives to the official MBTI interpretations that don’t reply on type dynamics and have far better empirical and logical foundations, there is a good summary here.)

Jung (quoted here), who provided the theoretical groundwork for the MBTI, even seemed aware of his ideas usefulness being limited to second nature ‘The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist to explain for instance, the husband to a wife or vice versa’.

So if anything Myers Briggs is only really useful as a metaphor for understanding thinking of yourself and others, and even then we have to be careful to avoid the Barnum/Forer effect or other biases.

The Big 5: Nearer First Nature

Certainly it seems justified to me on both an ethical and scientific level only to use the ideas of Jung, Myers and Briggs to identify behaviour/label use of functions to reduce your snap judgments of that person, blame the function not the person so to speak, rather than pigeon hole the person’s entire personality. This is to be done with caution, remembering that they are a useful metaphor, but we are firmly in second nature territory.

In a similar way I’ve thought that many of the experiences reported by religious adherents are useful metaphors, I find the metaphor of losing myself and becoming one with the universe a useful metaphor for how meditation really does feel. The problem lies in trying to say this is not second nature, but truly describes things about the nature of the universe. Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion presents an very good, highly readable, evidenced based polemic that the self is perhaps the ultimate second nature metaphor. The real problem is in combination of functions, the hierarchy, the represents the person’s default pattern of behaviour, that I’ve yet to see any evidence, or have any argument presented, that this has more reason to believe the personality descriptions than those constructed based on star signs.

In contrast, there’s a more valid test called the Big 5 (or OCEAN) which has stronger theoretical foundations; it gives continua rather than dichotomies and this is accepted as fine, people do not need to be put into boxes, and the categories have been demonstrated to have no confounding overlap. It has stronger evidence-based foundations too; we have neurological pathway candidates for each of five factors and we know their heritability (around 50% for each trait). Its retest reliability of 80% is much better than the Myers Briggs’s 50%. Despite being called the Big 5, researchers who use it admit 5 may be too few, whereas MBTI limited to four by its very foundations. The Big 5 only provides one with a score for place on each continuum, thus avoiding the descriptions of overall personality. Some Big 5 tests come with a list of adjectives; these are based on one’s answers to the test questions in relation to the average answer. Therefore, they only report what you have put in the test. To be fair to MBTI, there is some correlation between its dichotomies and the Big 5 continua; they may in fact be a good proxy, but it’s the type dynamics of MBTI where things really start to go awry.

Putting Metaphor in Its Place

With its empirical strengths the Big 5 is a better approximation of first nature, we can be more confident that it more closely represents reality, but it must be about second nature too. And this is a point I wanted to clarify when I talked about the limits of science in my last post. I said that the study of first nature by science may have little to comment on second nature, placing a limit on second nature; it can only be used metaphorically. Although, based on how well the human brain responds to metaphor this is not a disparagement, it is praise with a caution, metaphors can be so seductive that we get so wrapped up in them we lose sight of the first nature. Second nature is still a metaphor itself, the Big 5 research demonstrates that second nature can be pinned down to first nature. My belief as a materialist is that is always the case in theory, but not always practicable or desirable depending on the subject, hence sometimes we will or should be restricted to discussing purely in terms of second nature. For the most part, however, that limit does encompass a much smaller area of human life and is usually believed. I argue it does not encompass spiritual behaviour, the limit the other way is much stronger; second nature metaphors may just so happen hit upon first nature (in the way Freud by chance happened to be right on some things, but it may not. For most things related to human cognition we can discuss both natures, the problem, like I’ve spoken about with interpretations of spiritual experiences, is when we mistake one nature for the other. This leads to people getting lost in the metaphors of theology, a field almost entirely second nature, becoming detached from any first nature underpinning and losing sight of it’s original use; the first nature effects on the world, especially human minds. We need science to explore these first nature outcomes and tell us which are most effective in improving human well-being.

Where does this leave my personal view of myself? Well the fact that others describe having similar behaviour to me in metaphor is still enough to feel less pathological and more accepting of myself. It has made me more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, aware of what I can work on and what to forgive myself for. The lack of first nature, objective ‘truth’ of Myers-Briggs does not reduce the psychological benefits. Just as I argue that the lack of first nature, objective ‘truth’ of spiritual belief does not affect the psychological benefits. A problem like depression needs tackling on several fronts, those of first nature, such as medication, and of second nature by reflection and discussion with others, and therapy, which is perhaps a combination of first and second nature, using evidence-based techniques tailored to the individual patient based on discussion of their second nature.


– The Spiritual Materialist



4 thoughts on “Second Nature in Practice: A Critique of Myers-Briggs

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